ARTHUR MILLER’S excellent play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century, is an allegory of the communist witch-hunts in 1950s America. The original witch-hunts in Salem, as detailed in the play, saw innocent people found guilty of witch-craft and executed, all on the basis of no evidence other than false testimony. So it’s a bit rich that Lord William Nimmo Smith’s investigation into Rangers was dubbed a witch-hunt now that the club has been given a mere slap on the wrist having been found guilty of a crime on the basis of actual hard evidence.
Yet it’s funny how quick people are to change their opinion on something when it is suddenly in their interests. Lord Nimmo Smith’s investigation into Rangers’ EBT payments was derided by the club, its independence called into question, and dubbed a “kangaroo court” by fans, ex-chairman Alastair Johnston and ex-player Mark Hateley. However now the tribunal has in effect ruled in Rangers’ favour by not recommending the stripping of titles, Green and co. are using the verdict of that same “kangaroo court” as a vindication of their actions, as proof of innocence. A witch-hunt indeed… until it rules in Rangers’ favour, with Ally McCoist now praising the judge, saying he “makes decisions [for a living] — and I’d have to say he’s very good at it”.
Despite being found guilty of not disclosing payments to players, the club and fans are treating the result as a victory, that they are the hard-done-by party. Charles Green has called for an apology from “many people”, while others — including, unsurprisingly, Craig Burley — have called for The Rangers to be admitted to the SPL. Fans meanwhile have blamed the ‘witch-hunt’ of Rangers for their faltering title bid last season and ultimate demise, calling now for the new club, The Rangers, to be promoted into the SPL on the back of Lord Nimmo Smith’s (guilty) verdict, overlooking the fact it was the club’s financial mismanagement under previous owners that led to their points deduction and liquidation. They also overlook the fact this guilty verdict relates to Rangers Oldco and its crimes — therefore even if they had been found innocent, it would have no bearing on whether the new club The Rangers, whose board and owners bear no responsibility for the crimes and wrongdoings of Rangers Oldco, should be fast-tracked to the SPL.
Unfortunately what seems to have been lost among the cries of “witch-hunt”, “kangaroo court”, “vindicated”, and “innocent” is that Rangers were in fact found guilty. For years the club broke the rules by not disclosing to football’s authorities payments made to players. In a court of law if someone receives less than the maximum sentence for the crime they committed, we don’t say it’s a sign of their innocence; instead the guilty party is usually relieved at receiving a lighter sentence — unfortunately Scottish football is a law unto itself, hence the recent air of exoneration despite Rangers being found guilty.
Lord Nimmo Smith ruled that “the board of directors sanctioned the making of payments under the side-letter arrangements without taking any legal or accountancy advice to justify the non-disclosure”. Basically, Rangers’ years of cheating was a mistake, an admin error. But again, in any court of law for any crime, you will be told that ignorance is no defence. Not so in Scottish football.
Lord Nimmo Smith said this ‘mistake’ by Rangers didn’t affect the eligibility of players so no sporting penalty — a retrospective points deduction or stripping of titles — was necessary. Yet the undeclared EBTs Rangers used and were punished for allowed them to minimise tax spend and maximise transfer/wages spend. So the valid argument could be made that had the Oldco not utilised the tactics for which it has been fined, Rangers wouldn’t have been able to afford the players in the first place that helped them win five titles during 2000-11. Yet if Rangers thought the EBT scheme was okay, why hide the payments from the SPL?
Whether we agree with the punishment or not, Lord Nimmo Smith is an impartial High Court judge and we must respect his verdict. He carried out a thorough investigation in the face of ongoing criticism from the start and the calling into question of his commission’s integrity and impartiality. No verdict he could have delivered would have pleased everyone so he was always on a hiding to nothing. But he had no vested interest in the proceedings, found Rangers guilty of failing to disclose EBT payments and administered what he feels is an appropriate punishment.
Rangers got to keep their titles despite breaking the rules, yet some The Rangers fans — and pundits, like Burley — have called Celtic’s title victory last season (and the titles they’re tipped to win over the next three years) tainted. Well, Celtic didn’t cheat en route to last year’s title (not even the misdemeanour of forgetting to declare payments to players). It was won fair and square. As for those who claim Celtic’s potential title victories over the next three years would be tainted due to the absence of a strong The Rangers, well, that’s a very high opinion to hold of a club whose previous incarnation was found guilty of cheating Scottish football and was liquidated after years of financial mismanagement. Their absence from the SPL is a result of their own failings.
It was of course that previous incarnation, Rangers Oldco, that was fined £250,000 by Lord Nimmo Smith’s commission and not The Rangers, the club currently in Division Three. So one thing that Lord Nimmo Smith’s verdict (a verdict that Green, McCoist et al have suddenly been quick to endorse after months of slating the commission) has reiterated, is that Rangers Oldco and Newco are two different clubs. And while The Rangers Newco shouldn’t be expected to shoulder Oldco’s punishment or burden of guilt, by the same token, why should they be entitled to the Oldco’s achievements? You can’t pick and choose your history.
So Rangers still have their record 54 titles. And with The Rangers hurtling inexorably to the Division Three title, may I congratulate them, albeit a few weeks early, on their first ever trophy in Scottish football — and in their first year of existence. Well done lads, see you in the SPL in 2015… maybe…